Sunday, November 25, 2012

Curiousity piqued.

By now we've all heard that NASA's JPL Martian rover 'Curiosity'  may have found something big. Data came back from the SAM kit on Curiosity after it had tested some of the Martian soil. In an interview, John Grotzinger (lead scientist on the mission) had this to say:
This data is going to be one for the history books, it's looking really good
Obviously  his statement does not tell us what they think they've found, but this much we do know... SAM is designed to detect organics (among other things) if they are present in the soil samples. So the smart money is that Curiosity has in fact found organic material in the soil. This actually wouldn't be a huge surprise, given that scientists believe organic material falls to Mars regularly. However, the earlier Viking lander tested for organics and surprisingly came up empty. Though, with that in mind, I would call the discovery of organics on Mars would be important, but not really 'one for the history books' in my opinion. Obviously the internet is a-buzz about what they may have found that would be that big of news (assuming followup tests confirm results and rule out Earthly contamination). The leading thoughts are 1) NASA exaggeration, and 2) Curiosity has found evidence of past or present life on Mars! Personally, I am hoping for the latter, but we'll have to wait and see what is announced. They've said it may take several weeks to confirm their findings. But there are rumors of a possible announcement in early December. While I am hopeful that they have found some evidence for life, I wouldn't be surprised if it is just the confirmation of organics. But is that really a total let down. One could argue that the finding of organics might be a good thing for the past Viking mission. One test that Viking ran, actually looked to have found evidence of metabolism in the Martian soil. Something that would confirm still living bacteria. But then the test for organics came up empty. No organics equals no life. The same test was later ran on soil from a similarly dry place on Earth, and that test also came up empty. So there has been some dispute that the Viking tests may have found organics and the test was flawed, and that the metabolism test may have been valid as well. So if Curiosity has in fact found proof of organics, that means that the ingredients of life should be present, and that Viking may have found life all those years ago. But let's assume for a moment that Curiosity itself has found evidence for life on Mars. If it has, that would be amazing news. It would prove that we are not alone in the universe, and that life on Earth is not even unique in our solar system. The implications would mean that life is actually widespread throughout the cosmos. Additionally, it could give humanity the kick in the pants needed to get serious about real and far reaching space exploration.

Another interesting thing to see would be the reaction by the religious. To many, the discovery of life outside of Earth would have serious implications. Sure, there are those that are already open minded to life elsewhere. But they tend to be the ones that are the more generic forms of followers or are not as literally religious. There would also be those that would say that life on Mars simply wasn't mentioned because Earth was what was important, or that 'God had a plan for them as well', or that the Bible doesn't explicitly say that there is no other life. But the most interesting ones would be those that will claim that the Bible always has the truth about everything, and that life on Mars is included as well. I have a feeling that it would go something like the following... The story of Adam of Eve would suddenly become less literal then they usually claim. Mars would be Eden, and Adam & Eve would be the microbes in the Martian soil. Then a meteor impact carried them to Earth to seed it. 'The fall' would become the literal fall of the meteor to Earth. Finally, the life of work and toil that followed after Eden/Mars would be the life that then flourished on our wet globe. Obviously there are still terminal problems with such a claim. But we can worry about those later. If Curiosity truly has proof of past or current life on Mars, that will be amazing and important news. So, like everyone else not lucky enough to be part of the inner circle on the Mars mission, I'll be waiting with great anticipation to learn what Curiosity may have unearthed on our planetary next door neighbor irregardless of what the announcement is.

-BH

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